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The Soldier’s Faith

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (March 8, 1841 – March 6, 1935)Today we’re honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and all who have been willing to do so.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a senior at Harvard in 1861, joined the army and saw action in the Civil War, suffering wounds at Ball’s Bluff, Antietam, and Fredericksburg.

In a talk at Harvard on Memorial Day on May 30, 1895, he reflected on war and death and the passage of time. Holmes was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 and served for thirty years.

Here’s part of what he said:

Three years ago died the old colonel of my regiment, the Twentieth Massachusetts. He gave the regiment its soul. No man could falter who heard his “Forward, Twentieth!” I went to his funeral. From a side door of the church a body of little choir- boys came in alike a flight of careless doves.

At the same time the doors opened at the front, and up the main aisle advanced his coffin, followed by the few grey heads who stood for the men of the Twentieth, the rank and file whom he had loved, and whom he led for the last time. The church was empty. No one remembered the old man whom we were burying, no one save those next to him, and us. And I said to myself, The Twentieth has shrunk to a skeleton, a ghost, a memory, a forgotten name which we other old men alone keep in our hearts.

And then I thought: It is right. It is as the colonel would have it. This also is part of the soldier’s faith: Having known great things, to be content with silence. Just then there fell into my hands a little song sung by a warlike people on the Danube, which seemed to me fit for a soldier’s last word, another song of the sword, but a song of the sword in its scabbard, a song of oblivion and peace.

A soldier has been buried on the battlefield.

And when the wind in the tree-tops roared,
The soldier asked from the deep dark grave:
“Did the banner flutter then?”
“Not so, my hero,” the wind replied.
“The fight is done, but the banner won,
Thy comrades of old have borne it hence,
Have borne it in triumph hence.”
Then the soldier spake from the deep dark grave:
“I am content.”

Then he heareth the lovers laughing pass,
and the soldier asks once more:
“Are these not the voices of them that love,
That love–and remember me?”
“Not so, my hero,” the lovers say,
“We are those that remember not;
For the spring has come and the earth has smiled,
And the dead must be forgot.”
Then the soldier spake from the deep dark grave:
“I am content.”

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